Main Building Being Repaired, Cleaned Under Scaffolding

The iconic building on Drexel University's campus is getting a facelift — from an alumnus.
Scaffolding on Main Building covers the archway over the Chestnut Street entrance.
The scaffolding will remain on Main Building until the end of the year.

When the scaffolding comes off the exterior of Drexel University’s Main Building next year, you might not notice much that’s different. But the building façade will have been gently cleaned, the masonry restored and sealed and the terracotta repointed so that the 131-year-old building will look like it’s had a mild glow-up.

Associate Vice President and University Architect Nancy Rogo Trainer said that the renovations are just another part of caring for the building and making sure it stays stable and will last as a Drexel icon for future generations of Dragons.

“It’s all just age-related care,” Trainer said. “It’s an incredibly well-built building. We’re being good stewards by prioritizing repairs that extend the life of the building.”

Historic preservationist and project manager Nan Gutterman of Vitetta Architects planned and documented the restoration and produced construction documents for the project. Though it won’t be too obvious, like the interior renovation of Main Building’s ceiling was last year, the care still requires extensive scaffolding to be installed so workers can inspect the building and restore it to preservation standards.

Two construction workers on scaffolding clean terracotta on Main Building.
Two construction workers clean the terra cotta. A black, tacky substance was previously used on the building in an attempt to keep birds away, so workers are removing as much of it as they can.

Some of the building’s original windows are still in place in the auditorium, so those will need to be repaired and restored. The building will be gently cleaned as well, and degraded mortar will be replaced to keep the building watertight.

“It’s actually a fairly complex project,” Trainer said. “Our first job is to make sure we’re not compromising any historical fabric unnecessarily. The visible improvements will be much more subtle than, say, the repainting of the Great Court ceiling, but the work is at least every bit as important.”

It’s important work to the Drexel community. So who’s been tasked to do that work? After Gutterman planned the restoration, Gilbane Building Company became the construction manager for the job and subcontracted Joseph Dugan Inc. to work on the façade. Recently, Colton Heimer ’02, an architectural engineering Drexel alumnus, became the sole CEO and owner of the latter company.

Colton Heimer stands on scaffolding.
Heimer graduated from Drexel in 2002, but he's stayed in the Philadelphia area as he built his career.

“It's a really big honor for me to be on the project, and it’s really full circle,” Heimer said. “We do a lot of work in the Philadelphia area, and we do a lot of work for institutions, like universities, hospitals and other large entities. We just finished a large job at Drexel’s Kelly Hall as well.”

Heimer majored in architectural engineering with a concentration in structural engineering. During his time at Drexel, he played on the men’s soccer team and worked multiple co-ops. He’s come back to Drexel since then to co-teach “CMGTT380: Masonry Construction (New and Restoration)” in the winter terms of 2021 and 2022. After graduation in 2002, he began working in the structural engineering field from 2002 until 2010. As time went on, he discovered he enjoyed the construction side of things more than engineering.

“I learned a lot about putting construction documents together and investigating building problems, water leaks and things like that, as well as putting together repair documents that would be bid to contractors like Joseph Dugan Incorporated, among other companies in the Philadelphia area,” Heimer said. “Then in 2010, I got an offer from Joseph Dugan Incorporated to come work with them. It was a good transition for me at that point in time. I had enough time to understand the engineering process and I understood a lot of what causes the problems that require building repairs.”

Colton Heimer points out details in the main Building terra cotta.
Heimer points out the terra cotta details on Main Building. Everywhere on the building, there are beautiful terra cotta details, he said.

Heimer has the knowledge to direct his company in the full restoration of Main Building. The nitty-gritty of the restoration lies in the repointing of the terracotta and brick masonry, which will be 100 percent and 50 percent repointed respectively.

“A lot of the ornate details on the exterior of Main Building are made out of terracotta, so when you look up and see the decorative bands and archways and window surroundings, all of those are terracotta,” Heimer said. “In between those terracotta units is mortar. We’re removing that existing mortar to a depth of about an inch and then repointing all of that.”

The scope of restoration is determined by the restoration architect on the project, which in this case is Gutterman of Vitetta, who was in charge of the design and documentation of the restoration.

Once Joseph Dugan Inc. won the bid to subcontract for Gilbane, a scaffolding team — from a different subcontractor — got to work putting up scaffolding in June. Besides the terracotta and brick repointing, the building will be cleaned, along with other minor masonry patching and window restoration. Heimer is making sure to take before and after photos, which will show the results of the cleaning and restoration program.

Colton Heimer points out a joint in the terra cotta.
Heimer points out a joint between terra cotta bricks. The degraded mortar was removed and will be replaced with a mortar that will match the color as close as possible so the joints are not visible.

“It’ll be a lot cleaner and a lot more vibrant,” Heimer said. “It’ll be glowing. That’s the hope. You’ll never get it back to its original appearance, because it’s 131 years old, but we should be able to make it look good.”

Making Main Building glow is a point of pride for Heimer, who said he loves not only Drexel, but the Philadelphia area as well.

"If you asked me 10 years ago, 'What are you going to be doing in 10 years?’ I would’ve said that I’d be working in the restoration industry for a contractor or construction company, but I never would’ve thought that I would own one of these companies and then be working on such a large and important building on my alma mater’s campus,” Heimer said. “It’s a little surreal.”

Of course, things can change with construction and weather, but the goal is to have the scaffolding down and the project completed at the start of 2023.